Chainmaille jewelry comes in a wide variety of quality. Some chainmaille jewelry exhibits high-quality craftsmanship, fine materials, and professional manufacturing techniques. Some chain jewelry shows sloppy work with little attention to detail and uses low-end materials. Most chainmaille jewelry is somewhere in between.
If you are interested in buying chainmaille jewelry, how do you know what you are looking at? What should you look for in chain jewelry to determine whether the piece is worth the price?
1. Ring Closure
Ring closure refers to how accurately the cut ends of a jump ring match up. Most chainmaille jump rings are not soldered, so closure is the most important thing to look for. If rings don’t close completely, or if the cut ends don’t quite match up, the rings may scratch your skin and may, over time, pull apart.
If the closures are particularly bad, you can see the gaps and mismatched edges easily. Near-miss closures you can feel with your fingers because they will scratch or feel bumpy. Perfect closures are difficult to see and feel smooth. Unfortunately, perfect closures are nearly impossible to create with handmade chainmaille. Even so, ring closures should not have gaps, feel scratchy, or be noticeably misaligned.
One more problem with bad closures is that they can catch on clothing or on other rings. Over time, they will pull open, and rings may fall off.
Here is one of my pieces, with perfect and near-perfect ring closures. This is an extreme close-up of the Sterling Silver Viper Basket bracelet. (FYI: I fixed that near-perfect closure of the right after taking this picture. Near-perfect is not perfect!)
Here is a half Rondo a la Byzantine bracelet from someone else. The design is nice, but some of the closures could be much better.
Ring closure affects the price, as well as how much a buyer should be expected to pay. A jeweler has to work much harder to make perfect and near-perfect ring closures and must pay much greater attention to detail. The jewelry will also last longer, move more fluidly, and be more comfortable to wear.
Bottom line: The jewelry is worth more when the rings are closed well.
2. Ring Cut
Jump rings are cut 2 main ways: with a saw or with clippers. Saw-cut rings will have a flat edge, and clipper-cut rings will have a wedge. Saw-cut rings produce higher quality jewelry because they create a flat surface at the ring cuts. When the rings are closed perfectly, they make a continuous ring.
Clipper-cut rings have an additional problem. Because clippers pinch off the ends of a ring, they create a sharp edge, a knife edge that can really scratch your skin. In this image, the circled ring closures are not perfect, and that wedge-shaped edge may cause some serious scratching!
On the other hand, saw cut rings may also scratch because the ring cut can be very sharp if the jeweler had a good saw blade. An imperfectly closed, saw-cut ring will scratch you. As I mentioned above, perfect closures are very difficult to achieve. A difference of less than 0.1 mm will be noticeable. You might not be able to see it, but you can probably feel it. For this reason, I typically file all the cut edges slightly to create a more rounded edge.
I have noticed that people who make armor from stainless steel or high-strength industrial wire (such as for armor), tend to use clippers to cut their rings. These types of wire are much harder to saw cut than wire from copper, silver, a similar softer materials.
When I first started making chainmaille jewelry years ago, I clipped all my rings. Soon after, I “graduated” to saw-cut rings. The difference in quality was extreme.
Bottom line: Jewelry made from saw-cut rings is worth more.
3. Ring Density and Specifications
This characteristic is a bit harder to describe. High-quality chainmaille jewelry requires fairly exacting matching of wire gauge to ring diameter. It produces a dense weave in which the rings don’t “flop” out of positions. The weave should hold its shape under a variety of conditions.
If the wire is too thin, or if the rings are too large for the wire thickness, the chain will be loose and floppy, and the weave will spread out and lose its shape.
What you are looking for is a dense chain (a lot of rings per inch with little “air space” between them). However, the chain needs to be flexible enough to move fluidly. This is a fine line to achieve.
Most beginning chainmaille makers don’t understand the issue of Aspect Ratio and use rings that are too large for the weave because it makes the weaving easier. Using too-large rings is ok for learning and practicing, but quality chainmaille jewelry reflects careful matching of ring size and wire gauge.
Now, for comparison, here is someone else’s chain sample that is far too loose. Notice that the weave is almost indistinguishable. When the rings are too loose, the chain won’t hold its shape when worn. The rings will flop around unless the chain is stretched out, meaning they will hang out away from the rest of the chain, lay out flat, or bunch up. This bracelet would have been much better if the jeweler either used heavier wire or used smaller rings.
These two chain samples are the same design: Full Persian. The different in ring density makes a noticeable difference in appearance and beauty.
Bottom line: Dense but fluid chains are worth more than jewelry that is loose with floppy rings.
4. Wire type
I hesitate to discuss wire type because really great jewelry can be made from a wide variety of wire types. Coated copper, anodized silver plate, niobium, and stainless steel can make beautiful jewelry. On the other hand, these material types are less expensive to buy and use than sterling silver, gold-fill, gold, and platinum (i.e., precious metals). Much, much less.
With that said, plated, coated, and anodized wires will lose their surface treatment over time, so they don’t stay as beautiful as when you first buy them. Plated and coated materials cannot be polished or they will lose their surface coloration and material fairly quickly.
The bottom bracelet in this image is an older piece I made in silver plated wire. You can see how much of the silver plating has worn away, especially in comparison to the sterling silver bracelet at the top.
Plated, coated, and anodized rings do make a less expensive option to the higher-quality materials. Most importantly, they allow for lots of colors and interesting designs. For example, although sterling silver will always be sterling silver color (depending on the amount of tarnish, of course), anodized or permanently colored silver plated wire comes in many colors, from the deepest reds and blues to the lightest pinks and purples.
Niobium, especially, comes in really fantastic colors when anodized and can be quite beautiful. It is more expensive than plated materials, though not as expensive as precious metals. Unfortunately, the surface treatment that gives niobium its colors will wear away over time. On the other hand, if I were looking for colored wires, I would use niobium.
Personally, I think lower-end materials are fine for casual jewelry that you use as a low-cost fashion accessory. They may not be “fine jewelry” and they won’t retain their appearance, but they can be quite nice. The main difference is that high end materials cost more to use, have greater values, look and are more expensive, and will stay beautiful over time.
Bottom line: Jewelry made from precious metals is worth more.
It’s up to you.
When you are thinking about buying a piece of chainmaille jewelry, consider these four issues. Some may be more important to you than others, but they all should affect the price and how much you are willing to pay.
If you are a jewelry maker, you, too, need to consider these issues when determining the price to set for your jewelry. For example, a bracelet with poor closures should not be priced the same as a similar piece with perfect closures, much like a silver-plated bracelet should not be priced the same as a sterling silver bracelet. The reverse is also true. If you make high quality jewelry with precious metals, don’t drop your prices to compete with lower quality pieces. Instead, instruct your buyers why your prices are appropriate.